There are persons of Indian origin in Canada, the United States, United Kingdom and Germany who dream of an independent state of Khalistan. The dream is not shared by those they have left behind in the country where their forebears were born. But an overarching sense of guilt for leading a quality of life that the ones back home cannot share motivates them to sustain a demand that separatist elements in Punjab very long ago abandoned.
A lawyer named Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who is a US citizen, is the progenitor of a campaign named ‘Sikh Referendum 2020’. He has been active in the untenable demand for a separate Sikh homeland. Many young Sikhs settled abroad have been influenced by him. But what has disturbed the Punjab government and its police is that some local youths have also been taken in.
The purported sacrilege of religious texts some time in 2015 provided the trigger for violence. The deaths of two protesters in police firing added fuel to the fire. The radicalisation of youth is a natural corollary to such events. Pakistani intelligence is bound to pounce on such opportunities to keep the Indian State on its toes.
The Sikh diaspora has always been more enthusiastic about Khalistan than their co-religionists back home. In 1987, a six-member parliamentary delegation from Ottawa arrived in India to verify the stories of murder and mayhem told to them by their Sikh Canadian constituents. The Indian government of the day was reluctant to let them visit the Golden Temple. I, as the DGP of the state, welcomed the visit as I knew that the real truth would unfold.
The delegation arrived. Police received the members of the Canadian Parliament, but voiced their inability to accompany them inside the temple as it was “occupied” at the time by dangerous elements. Since the delegation’s safety was not in doubt, it was allowed to enter the temple. Its eyes were opened, and they reported the facts on the ground to their press.
It is this same segment of the expatriate population in Canada, the US, UK, and Germany that spearheads the attempt to revive the terrorist disturbances in Punjab despite the lack of enthusiasm for Khalistan within the native population.
The emergence of social media has facilitated the spread of ideas that drive fringe elements into thoughtless actions. Pakistani intelligence will ever be willing to provide the logistical support that desperate men require to forment such trouble. The hand grenade used in the attack on the Nirankari prayer hall most probably originated in our neighbouring country.
The Nirankaris are always an easy, enticing target. They are, and always have been, the convenient starting point for conflict since their assertion of a living guru has always riled the devout. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale made them the starting point of his campaign, and although similar conditions and considerations do not prevail as of today, it behoves the Indian State to take note of Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat’s warning that the drums of war can be heard in a state that has long been honoured as the ‘Sword Arm of India’.
I consider Capt Amarinder Singh my friend. His focus should rest on the necessity of ensuring that the ordinary Jat Sikh farmer remains squarely in the camp of the Indian State. He needs to ensure that the police force treats ordinary citizens with the courtesy and dignity that is due to them. And that would translate to a rigid control over the endemic corruption in every government department. If he is able to achieve that goal, he can leave the problem of dealing with the ISI to National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who knows exactly what needs to be done and when.
The people of Punjab, the Jat Sikh farmers in particular, put an end to a decade of terrorism that had upset the rhythm of their lives. They did it by surrendering the miscreants in their midst when their depredations became unbearable. I doubt they will revert to providing the tacit support that had then proved to be the oxygen the terrorists needed.
Pakistani intelligence in those dreadful times did provide weapons, shelter and training facilities to Khalistani terrorists but that alone would not have been enough to sustain the low-cost war the miscreants were fighting. Support of their co-religionists was absolutely essential. When that was withdrawn, peace returned to Punjab.
It is essential for the State to understand this truth if it is to avert any recrudescence of the trouble. The Punjab of today is not the same as the Punjab of the 1980s. The only similarity I concede is that the Akalis still smart when they are out of power. In their frustration they tend to indulge in razor-edge politics. They may not do this now as they have learnt their lessons. Besides, ground conditions are different today. To begin with, there is no Bhindranwale around to capture the people’s collective imagination. The Akalis’ favourite whipping boy, the Congress party, is out of power in Delhi. More importantly, Jat farmers would not want a repeat of the sufferings they endured when terrorism reigned.
The main question the authorities need to answer is who gains if the miscreants are able to disturb the peace? Our neighbour, of course, would rejoice. But who in Punjab stands to gain? If the answer to that query is ascertained then correct solutions will be found. Mounting counter-propaganda in the US, UK and Canada to neutralise Gurpatwant Singh Pannun and his ilk should be the first item on the agenda of both the state and the central governments.
Ribeiro led the Punjab Police during some of the state’s worst years of terrorism